Friendship & Community in The Wind in the Willows

Feast of St Anthony the Great

Wind_in_Willows_Square.jpegI AM OF the opinion, and I have it on good authority, that The Wind in the Willows is the most beautiful book ever written in the English language. If you haven’t read it, if you haven’t read it since childhood, if you’ve only seen the cartoon (or if you’ve only been on “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” at Disneyland), I’ll ask you to take my word for it until you (sensibly) make the time to read and judge for yourself. It’s worth reading at any time, though I recommend reading it aloud, in Spring, out-of-doors if possible, on a weekend afternoon.

Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even Mole’s dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing…

This book isn’t beautiful merely for its prose or structure – though these are enchanting. The real beauty of the book is the way it magnifies a beautiful subject: community and friendship. From its epic opening passage, with Mole shouting “Hang spring-cleaning!” and fighting his way up and out into the open countryside (thus beginning his search for community) to the Homeric reclamation of Toad’s ancestral home, the intertwining themes of camaraderie, loyalty, adventure, self-giving, and service are the heart and the fuel of the narrative.

Mole and Rat form a friendship at the beginning of the book which becomes the impetus for the entire plot. They are deeply loyal to each other, and each brings something to the friendship that the other does not have. The Rat brings domestic stability and a knowledge of the animal society which Mole would like to enter. The Mole brings gusto and spontaneity to Rat’s simple but happy routine. It is in the course of Rat introducing Mole to society that the reader first hears of the reclusive Badger and meets the reckless Toad.

These four characters represent four very different personality types. They often disagree about important matters. They are from diverse socio-economic backgrounds (Toad is very wealthy; Mole is poor). Their living habits are not compatible (Badger prefers absolute solitude). Good advice isn’t always heeded (Toad’s misadventures come from not heeding good advice). But the idea that quite different kinds of people can and do remain friends and maintain the ties of love despite their changes and failings is taken for granted in the world of The Wind in the Willows. These are characters who would consider it the height of dishonor to ever abandon a friend. To abandon a friend would be to abandon one’s own soul.

“What lies over there?” asked the Mole, waving a paw towards a background of woodland that darkly framed the water-meadows on one side of the river.

But at the same time, these friends live in a potentially dangerous world. There is a Wild Wood, whose animals can’t always be trusted. There is a human world of policemen, jails, hunters. There is an ancient world of ruined buildings out of which the Wild Wood has grown. And there is the dangerous world of the heart – hopes, addictions, desires – which proves just as disastrous for some of the characters as any of the physical dangers.

It follows, then, that the lessons on life and friendship exemplified in the book are not (merely) for children. The characters in the story have grown-up problems. Otter must worry over a missing child; Toad must reclaim a lost home; Mole must choose community over solitude; Rat must decide whether adventure or domesticity is the more fulfilling. In all of these decisions, each character balances his own inner life with the advice and support of his friends. The successful conclusion of these dilemmas and decisions depends on the strength of friendship.

Eight Day Institute is hosting their 8th annual symposium on friendship and society. This subject couldn’t be more timely. Friendship holds society together. Friendship is the tie that binds a small group together despite the pull of a larger group. If you are raising children, you need vigilant and intelligent community to support you and you want your children to have excellent friends. Their friends, ideally, would come from your vigilant and intelligent community.

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“In due time,” said the Swallow, we shall be homesick once more for quiet waterlilies swaying on the surface of an English stream. But today all that seems pale and thin and very far away. Just now our blood dances to other music…”

A society without friendship ceases to be society. It is loneliness. Or worse, it is anarchy or tyranny. We are accustomed to think of alternate forms of government in terms of leadership. But is it possible that the relationships of people within a society truly characterize it – even more than the governing body or the economic structure? In what kind of society does friendship thrive? Perhaps this is the question we should be asking, rather than what kind of economy is strongest or which group should be in power. A nation of rich and vibrant friendships would not only be able to answer such questions well, but it would be able to survive all the changes time inevitably brings to people and nations.

Despite my firm belief in the great power of friendship, it is not friendship in general, but friends in particular who should be the focus of our time and energy. This is one of the reasons I read The Wind in the Willows every year (and there are passages I read aloud, even to myself). It reminds me of the importance of my own friends, and some of the characters remind me of friends in particular. In one of my longest-lasting friendships (going on 30 years) I am Rat and my friend is Mole. This dynamic is so obvious whenever we’re together, that passages from the book become even more alive for me.

My best friends have such a depth of loyalty for me and for each other that I couldn’t imagine life without them. Some friendships are based on mutual belief, some on shared history, some are simply mysterious. My friendships can’t really be quantified or categorized, because friendship goes more deeply into the human experience than common projects or politics. True Friendship is something of God. And anyone who has had true friends can say, “my friends have made me who I am.”

“…and then, in that utter clearness of the immanent dawn, while Nature, flushed with the fullness of incredible color, seemed to hold her breath for the event, Mole looked into the very eyes of the Friend and Helper…”

Joshua Alan Sturgill is a former Vice-President of Eighth Day Institute and a graduate of Sangre de Cristo Seminary. His eleven-year association with Eighth Day Books provided frequent opportunities for lectures on literature, iconography, and Orthodox theology at universities, conferences, and churches. He currently resides in Santa Fe, NM, pursuing a degree at St. John's College. He spends as much time as possible reading and hiking.

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